Bristol March 17th

It’s not an exaggeration to say this is going to be an historic year – possibly even unprecedented. Yesterday the streets were crowded, tourists wandered around in groups or pairs, students made their way to or from lectures or meetings with friends. Today the city seems cleared out, the streets had been tipped up and emptied of all their traffic.

Coronavirus – Covid 19 – has suddenly become a stark reality in the UK as we knew it would. For the last few weeks we have traced its invisible journey across the world from Wuhan in China, which went into enforced lockdown across to Europe where the spread of the virus went into overdrive in Italy and Spain. Lombardy and Veneto were the first places in Northern Italy where people were forced to stay at home followed quickly by the whole country being forced to stay put apart from for essential travel.

My friend, Glyn, posted a picture of him and his boys topless doing circuit training on their roof in Florence. Another story emerged of communal singing from balconies of tower blocks in Naples.

And now it’s here.

At about 5pm yesterday Boris Johnson – more solemn and restrained than he has been in the past – appeared alongside his two senior medical advisors to outline how the nation should respond. Non-essential gatherings in public spaces have been discouraged especially ‘pubs, clubs, theatres and music venues’. Within a few hours the Theatre Society had announced that all theatre performances would be cancelled. The most urgent advice concerned the over 70s who should stop all non-essential contact.

This means Mum, who has really been self-isolating herself with Dad and Grace anyway for the last 6 months will now no longer have any of the visits from her great friends like Mary, Deezle, Benedicta and Erica because they are all in that category. Also, the risk of passing something on to her or to Dad doesn’t bear thinking about. Of course it makes me think what risk do we, her children, pose but we have to be there for her unless we start displaying symptoms (continuous coughing or a high temperature). This is what she wants.

Anyone displaying symptoms are advised to self-isolate for a week. If they live with others the whole household should self-isolate for two weeks. Here I have an advantage. I already self-isolate. I eat, drink, sleep, write, shop, exercise and most other activities alone. Having said that I have been feeling a bit rough today but not in the way that’s described in the NHS advice. Still, I cancelled my Tuesday evening lesson with Jacob just in case. I did see Roger earlier though and he and Lesley seemed on good form. They also spend their lives self-isolating. They are isolated. It makes me wonder how much less at risk they are.

Although the PM said that schools would not be closed yet, Lesley told me that half of Kings Oak Academy had stayed at home. Then about an hour ago Mark sent an email from The Blue that 35 staff would not be coming into school tomorrow and so only KS4 classes would be going ahead. That means none of my classes will be coming in. However I still need to go in to provide cover for absent staff.

What a difference a day makes. On Sunday evening I had popped into Bristol Fringe to see the owner, Sylvie, who I had interviewed the day of Greta Thunberg’s address (Feb 28th). A jazz duo were just warming up. Older regulars were propping up the bar determined to ignore the news and be social. The same was going on at my local, The Alma, which had its usual mix of old blokes, couples and students all having a drink or three and being stoical. 

I wrote to Sylvie today and she said that Saturday night had been one of the busiest nights she had had in the nine years she’s been running The Fringe but now their customers are being asked to stay away without bars, pubs, clubs actually being shut down. It puts her in a major dilemma: ‘ I have a moral duty of closing but wont be covered if I do. I am not sure what to do so I think I will limit people coming into the bar until friday and see if I want to open on the weekend knowing I’ll lose a lot of money.’

It’s tough and the same for thousands of other small businesses like her’s. I hope it doesn’t put her out of business.

Similarly yesterday I also met Rhys Williams down at St Mary Redcliffe where I was going to volunteer for the new Chatterton 250th anniversary project. The child poet was born just across from the church (his house is still there) and was obsessed with a room where they kept the church records in big cases. Apparently this is the room where he was inspired to write many of his poems. Rhys showed me all around the church and told me about all his great hopes for the project. They were hoping to have a new room built where they were going to have the huge altar screen that was painted by Hogarth that hasn’t been seen in the church for years.

I liked Rhys. He was intelligent and intense and we had similar interests. History, old buildings, literature and storytelling. He was another person to get in touch today to say the project had been cancelled or – let’s hope – postponed until further notice.

Crazy days. Every day seems to throw up something new at the moment. Only on Friday I had been celebrating Spring and how much I enjoy the new lease of life that I’ve given myself:

‘Late start to another Friday at home. I love these days. I had a thought the other day that I’ve never been happier (apart from Dad). The little facets of my life are drawn together into a happy mix. My first feature will be published tomorrow in The Tablet. Nick Aletti was full of praise for my first profile about a woman who lived during the war in Bristol which I did for my LSJ course. I feel like I’m tapping into something which is me, which I actually have a skill at. After all those years saying ‘What am I doing?’, notes discovered in my bedroom at home written in London ‘Where am I going?’ ‘What’s my destination?’ Well, I think I might have arrived.’

And you know what? I have. The writing – even if most of it is unpaid – is a huge breath of fresh air. There’s no shortage of ideas. And I’m lucky that I don’t have to pressurise myself too much to write stuff to earn money because the teaching pays for that. Just.

I am lucky that I have a job that should be unaffected by this recent turn of events.

Something that was intriguing to me today was how I like novelty too much. Having gone for a run round the block via the lido to see how their business was (chlorine can kill the spread of covid 19 so there were still bodies thrashing up and down the pool) I headed down to the Victoria Rooms. Sitting on one of the Trafalgar Square-like lions in front of the neoclassical facade and pillars of that venerable old building I was fascinated by the loss of people. Noone else on those steps. Very few wandering around The Triangle. Only a few cars. A sudden, very noticeable absence. I felt it keenly like a snow day when the whole of the local world seems affected by something. Blue sky was appearing far away to the South over the rest of the city. And I smiled. A selfish smile. The smile of a free man who can wander the streets and observe changes while only having to worry about himself.

There have been other excitements. A long exchange and a near date with a friend of a friend last week. Someone who would be great. Someone who had to cancel – again – because she thought she might be displaying symptoms. I hope we will meet again but although we are only half a mile away from each other we are forced to stay apart. It is one to hope for. She really is great.

The strangeness of the situation make it hugely inspiring for a story. How many others must there be right now thinking the same? And enforced isolation would benefit a writer. We are some of the few people who can benefit from such a situation.

And to top it off Lamprini, the slowest burn of my life, came to stay on Saturday at the cottage and we finally kissed, consummating something that started last July. A fire that burns with such intensity and I might never have known. I might have just shrugged and thought different and it would have been burning bright right in front of me.

Never have I had so many kisses. Each one as measured and as ernest as the last. No pause to look or to giggle. This was intensely, sensually meant. Serious love. And given and given and received and given back over and over again.

It was like travelling in a new place where all is to be felt, every sense heightened.

It might also be the reason I am now starting to feel weak.

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